Written by Alexander Devriendt, Karolien De Bleser, Valentijn Dhaenens, and Joeri Smet. Directed by Alexander Devriendt. Produced by Ontroerend Goed, Theatre Royal Plymouth, Vooruit, and Richard Jordan Productions, in association with Summerhall and Big in Belgium. At the Cultch's Historic Theatre on Thursday, April 19. Continues until April 29
“Hue by hue, line by line, the nothing takes shape.”
World Without Us is full of lovely lines like this: descriptions of absence, of what arises in the place of absence, and the ways in which the planet survives and adapts after human extinction. These are all delivered in a 70-minute monologue by performer-cowriter Karolien De Bleser’s soothing yet clinical voice as she takes us through the immediate aftermath of a world without people and, eventually, millions of years into the future.
The first half of World Without Us is the most immersive and the most effective. There’s no music as De Bleser begins to speak, and in the darkened room, she asks the audience to note the ambient noise that surrounds us all the time, and what happens when that falls away—how you can hear “this concert of breathing in different tempos” from the audience.
De Bleser’s accounts of what we would feel, see, hear, and observe in the minutes and days after humans vanish are fascinating and engaging, even at their most graphic and chilling. Cities filled with “ticking time bombs”, fires and explosions, and nuclear meltdowns; a long and detailed look at a rat liberated by this new world, her eventual death, and the phases of decomposition.
Some of the information comes during an extended blackout, the show’s best and boldest decision. The further the audience disconnects from its own reality, the deeper we slip inside World Without Us. There’s already a nice tension from De Bleser’s delivery—the warm lilt of her voice juxtaposed with the almost scientific detachment of her observations—and the darkness heightens the mounting anxiety as we get farther and farther into the timeline.
The deeper we get inside World Without Us, the better our understanding of our utter insignificance. We are not the world; the world carries on without us just fine. The elk might be radioactive, but Earth carries on, nature adapts, and a world without us isn’t an abomination but rather a foregone conclusion.
Still, even at just 70 minutes, World Without Us drags in certain places. The blackout is great, but it goes on too long, particularly in combination with a hot theatre and De Bleser’s dulcet tones. And, though beautifully written, it’s also repetitive, occasionally devolving into more of a drawn-out dystopian fairy tale than thrilling piece of experimental theatre.